Grapevine August 12, 2023: Servants of the people

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

 PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, with soldiers on the Golan Heights. (photo credit: AMOS BEN GERSHOM/GPO)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, with soldiers on the Golan Heights.
(photo credit: AMOS BEN GERSHOM/GPO)

■ THE PERES Center for Peace and Innovation has declared 2023-2024 to be a Peres centenary year, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the birth of former president Shimon Peres. Because Peres, prior to his election as president, held the record for longest service in the Knesset, and held more ministerial portfolios than anyone else with the possible exception of the current prime minister, Efrat Duvdevani, director-general of the Peres Center, is often asked what Peres would say about the situation in which Israel finds itself today. Of course, no one knows what Peres would say, but there is little doubt that one of the things would be something that he often repeated in his lifetime. Elected officials should bear in mind that they are the servants of the public, not the masters. Given the behavior of certain ministers, this message resonates today more than ever.

New ambassadors

■ SEVERAL EMBASSIES are temporarily headed by a deputy chief of mission or a consul-general until the arrival of a new ambassador. At the French embassy, there was a minimal diplomatic gap. Almost immediately following the departure of ambassador Éric Danon, embassy staff greeted Ambassador-designate Frédéric Journès.

Baby giraffe

■ FOR THE second time in the space of a month, staff at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo celebrated the birth of a baby. The first time it was a giraffe. This time it was a monkey, the firstborn son to Zephyr and Shelby, whose origins are from South America, and were brought to the zoo to increase its resident monkey population. The infant weighed in at 125 grams.

Lone soldier harassment

■ KUDOS TO Housing and Construction Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf for speaking out against the behavior of a haredi family, which in the course of a train ride, harassed and humiliated a group of female soldiers. It’s one thing for the ultra-Orthodox to desist from joining the IDF, but quite another when they spit in the well from which they drink. Israel’s safety and security depends largely on the IDF as well as the Mossad and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency). 

 PRESIDENT ISAAC HERZOG, his wife, Michal, Police Commissioner Yaakov Shabtai, and church leaders at Stella Maris. (credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
PRESIDENT ISAAC HERZOG, his wife, Michal, Police Commissioner Yaakov Shabtai, and church leaders at Stella Maris. (credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)

National Library lagging behind

■ THE AWARDS ceremony for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature was initially scheduled to take place at the new National Library of Israel, and invitees who confirmed their attendance were eagerly looking forward to touring the building. But absolute completion of construction is still behind schedule, and visitors are required to wear hard hats.

The event was therefore moved to the Begin Center, and was quite well attended. Unlike book launches, this was not a one-on-one event in which some prominent personality engages in conversation with the author. Rather it was a panel discussion with the finalists, the winner, and two translators, conducted by Rabbi David Wolpe, who was also master of ceremonies, and is one of the regular adjudicators of the prize.

The $100,000 prize was established in 2006 by the children of the late Sami Rohr in celebration of his 80th birthday and his love for and promotion of Jewish literature. 

There has been a major change in Jewish literature in the aftermath of the Holocaust. New writers have emerged and have given expression to the contemporary Jewish experience, which is so different from that of Jewish individuals and communities in pre-war Europe or 19th and early 20th century America. Even in a digital age, people are still producing and reading books, and many prefer not to read them in digital form.

Last year, a new collaboration between the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and the National Library was announced. The award ceremony is held in alternate years in Jerusalem and New York. It was hoped that this year, in light of the collaboration, that the ceremony would be held at the NLI, which is now due to celebrate its official opening in October. NLI Chairman of the Board Sallai Meridor, who presented the finalists with their awards, invited everyone attending the ceremony at the Begin Center to come to the NLI opening in October – so chances are high that this particular deadline will be met.

George Rohr presented the award to this year’s winner, Iddo Gefen, the author of Jerusalem Beach (Astra House), after reading an excerpt aloud. Jerusalem Beach is a rich collection of stories enhanced by Gefen’s personal experience as a neurocognitive researcher, and a reader of Talmudic and other religious literature. His debut novel, Mrs. Lilienblum’s Cloud Factory (Kinneret Zemorah Bitan), was released in Hebrew last month to critical acclaim, and will also be published in English by Astra House.

 Wolpe, in introducing the authors and translators, presented a brief synopsis of each book, and noted that was the first time that translators were represented among both the winner and the finalists. Gefen’s book was translated by Daniella Zamir, who happened to be pregnant when contacted by Gefen’s literary agent, Deborah Harris, who insisted that she was the perfect translator for the book. Zamir demurred, but Harris was adamant. Zamir received her award from Evelyn Rohr Katz.

It was the first time that a translator had shared the prize with the winner, although translators have shared awards with finalists in the past. But this was not the only first. It was also the first time that a book originally written in Polish received SRP recognition. The book, I’d Like to Say Sorry, But There’s No One to Say Sorry To (The New Press), by Mikolaj Grynberg, contains vignettes illuminating the panorama of Jewish experience in contemporary Poland. The book’s translator, Sean Gasper Bye, also received SRP recognition.

The other finalists were Max Gross and Anna Solomon. Gross is the author of The Lost Shtetl (HarperVia), about a small, isolated Jewish village in Poland that is so secluded that it is unaware of contemporary history. No one knows it exists... until reality finally sets in. Solomon authored The Book of V. (Henry Holt and Co.), which is a triptych tale of the intertwining lives of three Jewish women across three centuries, beginning with Queen Esther and converging in the present, in the lives of two other women, one who is abused and humiliated by her husband and the other who has no ambition.

Wolpe was curious as to whether Grynberg was writing more as a Polish Jew or a Jewish Pole. Grynberg found it difficult to come up with a pat answer and simply said it was complex.

In expressing his thanks, Gefen said he was particularly honored to receive the prize in Jerusalem, and paid tribute to Zamir, for producing an English version that was much better than he had ever imagined. He also praised SRP for allowing writers to combine Jewish tradition with memory and to thereby celebrate not only the past, but the present and the future.

Gefen speaks fluent English, so perhaps the next time around, he will write directly in English instead of relying on a translator.

The next Sami Rohr Prize will be awarded in New York, in June 2024.

A family business

■ WHILE CERTAIN legislators are attempting to deprive women of their rights and career achievements, President Isaac Herzog and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are increasingly involving their wives in their activities. Presidential and prime ministerial wives are no longer window dressing at state dinners and other glittering occasions. Nor are they relegated to visiting sick children in hospitals or healthy children in kindergartens. They are partners in their husbands’ careers in the full sense of the term.

On Wednesday of last week, both the president and the prime minister were in the North with their wives. Herzog was in Haifa with his wife, Michal, and Netanyahu was in the Golan Heights with his wife, Sara. The Netanyahus were ostensibly in the North for their summer vacation, but threw in a little government business on the way, and visited with soldiers of the Nahal Brigade in the Mount Hermon Observation Point, chatting and drinking coffee with them.

Isaac and Michal Herzog, accompanied by Police Commissioner Yaakov Shabtai and spiritual leaders of various Christian communities, visited the Stella Maris Monastery in Haifa, which is headed by Father Jean Joseph Begara, the abbot of Stella Maris, which like many churches – particularly in Jerusalem and Haifa, have been under attack by Jewish and Muslim extremists. The accompanying Christian clergy included Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Archbishop of Nazareth Rafic Nahra, General Vicar of the Melkite Community Abuna Elias Abed, Anglican Bishop Hosam Naoum, Maronite Archbishop Moussa El-Hage, and Secretary of the Apostolic Nuncio Natale Albino.

Herzog emphasized that attacks against Christian individuals and Christian places of prayer, as well as desecration of Christian cemeteries, were totally unacceptable.

On the Golan, Netanyahu recalled that he had been there as a soldier and commander on many operations, mainly in the snow, and said the visit stirred many emotions in him and much nostalgia. 

“It is pleasant to be here in the sunshine and see the wonderful development of the Golan Heights,” he said, adding that he was pleased that the area will be under Israeli sovereignty forever. “This was not self-evident a few decades ago when I served here. Today it is understood by everyone.”